In a league of her own: Mellody Hobson’s journey to becoming the first Black female owner of an NFL team

BY Preta Peace Namasaba September 14, 2023 7:03 AM EDT
Melody Hobson. Photo credit: Melody Hobson

The historic acquisition of the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion marked a groundbreaking moment for Mellody Hobson, becoming the first Black female owner of an NFL team. As the co-CEO of Ariel Investments, a Black-owned money management fund dedicated to the needs of African-American investors, Hobson has consistently broken barriers. She also holds the position of chairwoman at Starbucks, making her the first Black woman to chair an S&P 500 company.

Hobson’s early life was marked by adversity as the youngest child of a single mother. Financial instability, frequent evictions, and the struggle to make ends meet were constant challenges. She vividly remembers the days of heating water on hot plates for baths and the inability to afford phone bills. These difficult experiences in her formative years fueled her unwavering work ethic.

Even though I will never be evicted again, I am haunted by those times and still work relentlessly. When I think of my career and why I leaned in, it comes down to basic survival.

Mellody Hobson in Vanity Fair

Hobson’s early hardships instilled in her a deep passion for learning. She was fiercely dedicated to her academic pursuits, even shedding tears if she missed school. Graduating from Saint Ignatius College Prep, a prestigious college-preparatory school, Hobson garnered the attention of Ivy League institutions. Despite initially choosing Harvard University, her decision to attend Princeton University was influenced significantly by John Rogers, a recruiter from Princeton who would later become a key figure in her career journey.

At Princeton, Hobson began her studies in mathematics but later switched to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. During her college years, she interned at prominent investment firms, including Ariel Capital Management and T. Rowe Price Associates. Following her graduation, Hobson joined Ariel Investments, where her Princeton mentor, John Rogers, had a pivotal role in her development. Starting as an intern, Hobson steadily climbed the ranks, ultimately becoming President of Ariel Investments in 2000 and co-CEO in 2019. Her enduring commitment to Ariel spans an impressive 32 years.

I was desperate to understand money, desperate for financial security. I felt like financial security would be the biggest gift I could ever have, ever.

Mellody Hobson writes in her chapter for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for Graduates

Hobson’s journey at Ariel Investments was not without challenges. In 1994, Ariel separated from its parent company, the Calvert Group, resulting in a $100 million drop in assets. Additionally, the financial crisis of 2008 took a toll on Ariel’s stocks, with the firm’s flagship fund experiencing a 50 percent decline and clients withdrawing their funds. Ariel’s assets under management, which had reached a peak of $21 billion in 2004, plummeted to just $3.3 billion in 2009. Despite these setbacks, Hobson successfully navigated the company through the crisis and expanded its assets to $10 billion. As of 2023, Ariel boasts approximately $16 billion in assets under management.

Mellody Hobson’s status as a trailblazer is further underscored by her role as Chairwoman of Starbucks, where she became the first Black woman to chair an S&P 500 company. Prior to this role, she served as a director of Starbucks Corporation and held the position of Vice Chair. Beyond Starbucks, Hobson has contributed her expertise as a director of The Estée Lauder Companies and was a director on DreamWorks’ board until its acquisition by Comcast. She assumed the position of Chair of the Economic Club of Chicago, marking the first time an African-American woman held this prestigious role in its 90-year history. Additionally, she sits on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, the George Lucas Education Foundation, and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. In a noteworthy tribute, Princeton University named a new residential college after Hobson in 2019, making it the first to bear the name of a Black woman.

In June 2022, Mellody Hobson achieved yet another historic milestone by becoming the first African-American woman to own an NFL franchise. She joined the ownership group that acquired the Denver Broncos, led by Rob Walton, a Walmart heir and former board chairman. The purchase price of $4.65 billion set a new record as the highest amount ever paid for an American sports franchise. While other Black women, like the Williams sisters, have held limited stakes in NFL franchises, Hobson stands as the first to be part of an original ownership group purchasing a team.

A passionate advocate for financial literacy and education, Hobson has shared her knowledge through courses, public appearances, and media engagements. She co-founded the Ariel Community Academy, a public school in Chicago that offers coursework in financial literacy. Under her guidance, Ariel launched the Black Corporate Directors Conference, bringing together board members from Fortune 500 companies. She created and hosted the ABC television show “Unbroke: What You Need to Know About Money” and regularly appears on “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning.”